The special significance of the Israel-Palestine conflict

Why is it that the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians generates such intense feelings among so many people? It goes deeper and spreads more widely than virtually any other current political issue. People who have no personal stake  – no relatives in any part of Israel and Palestine, for example – express themselves on this conflict with genuine feelings of grief and anger, where other conflicts provoke only a more general humanitarian response or concern for the unjustly treated. What’s special about Israel-Palestine?

No answer to this question, which grows out of my last post, and is posed directly by Alex Evans in his comment on it, can be found by considering the scale of the conflict. The 1994 Rwandan genocide, the brutal oppression and displacement in Sudan since 2003, the enormous death toll in Congo since 1997, the 1992-5 war in Bosnia-Herzegovina – these four among many horrors of the recent period have been, in terms of numbers killed or displaced, conflicts of a much greater scale. Among those with no direct connection or stake, these conflicts have elicited feelings of shock and horror rather than of anger and hurt, and usually lead to a by-stander’s sense of helplessness rather than an urge to get stuck in, which is what Israel-Palestine seems to provoke.

Nor, I think, does the strategic position of the Middle East really offer much of an explanation. Certainly, to understand the importance of the region as a whole, its strategic position is a key element, historically in Ottoman and European colonial periods, more recently in the Cold War, and today not least of course because of oil. The accident of geography and the hand of history combined to put the region at the intersection between different systems of rule and rivals for power, creating a site of confrontation in which open conflict and subtle compromise have alternated as the prevailing mode of relations between great outside powers over the past 200 years.

This, in a general sense, reflects a glow of significance onto Israel-Palestine, but only enough to make that conflict interesting and concerning rather than a source of passion and loathing. If you think that today oil is the beginning and the end of the matter, and if you believe that the US and its allies need influence in the region in order to ensure oil supplies, US support for Israel looks more like a piece of grit in the policy machinery than its lubrication. 

No, there is something different about Israel-Palestine. This is a conflict in a small part of the world that is a central element in what has been referred to as the sacred geography* of three great religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. All three have holy sites in Jerusalem and in other parts of what I was educated to call the Holy Land.

Consider that for a moment: Holy Land. For when people believe the very land is holy, we should expect different responses than normal to conflicts that unfold there. It is why we should expect policy to be based on foundations that are not all simple products of rationally calculated self-interest.

And that is why, at the beginning of my post on 22 Feb, I wrote that how arguments about this conflict are handled will have a big impact on our political culture. It is one of those places in political discourse where rational and non-rational meet and must both be accommodated. It is not the only such place. Law and order is another one and the Bush administration tried, part-succeeded but eventually failed to make counter-terrorism a third one. But in these similarly coloured issues, the non-rational element is fear, and the political task is effectively to distinguish rational and evidence-based concerns and fears from non-rational ones without a basis in fact, so as to figure out what can be adressed by policy and what cannot. What ultimately makes Israel-Palestine different not only from other conflicts but from other political issues involving non-rational and rational elements alongside each other is the role of hope and of faith.

It is the optimism, the joy and the energy of believing in something higher, superordinate and better that gives the Israel-Palestine its special, bitter flavours. Because it imbues our culture and not only our theology, it affects non-believers as much as believers. It is something that many people regard as in principle good that makes it so dangerous. As a result, it seems, it is particularly hard to argue about the conflict issues in an ordinary manner with orderly points, agreement about the evidence and mutual respect. And that is why, to go back to my previous post on this, that is why it is necessary to make an extra efort to protect and uphold rational, reasoned argument.


* I borrow this term from Karen Armstrong, A History of Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths (HarperCollins, 1997) – brilliant book, unreservedly recommended. The more people who read Karen Armstrong, the better are our prospects of thriving with dignity and decency.

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